Clause Four Resurfaces

As we go to press, it is with the Labour Party leadership battle raging and its four contenders spouting all manner of promises to secure votes. At the forefront of this contest is the long-serving and perhaps unusually principled left wing MP, Jeremy Corbyn. For a Labour MP, he is as radical as they come and a genuine throwback to the days when Labour was considered by many in Britain to be ‘socialist’. His attack on everything Blairism has come to represent, his stance on nuclear weapons, the Palestinian-Israeli conflict and many social issues, has won him much support, a lot of it from other parties on the left.

In early August came news that Corbyn was championing Labour’s old Clause 4 – its supposed socialist commitment to common ownership of production, distribution and exchange. ‘Corbynmania’ kicked in almost overnight, with social media sites buzzing with news that ‘socialism’ was back on the agenda, whilst the rightwing press, big business and big Labour donors have done all in their power to discredit him and anything to do with old Labour.

Liz Kendall, another Labour leadership contender and avid Blairite said: ‘Life has moved on from the old Clause 4 in 1994, let alone 2015. We are a party of the future, not a preservation society.’ Big Labour donor and businessman Assem Aklam, who swelled Labour’s coffers with £300,000 in donations, said he would stop funding the party if Corbyn became leader, announcing that he would not back a ‘dead horse’.


Nostalgic workers, who mourn the demise of Clause 4 in the 1990s, would do well to remind themselves of its authors and who they actually were – the Fabian Society – and what they actually thought about the working class. Perhaps the closest we come to a definition of the Fabians is Engels’ description of them as ‘a clique united only by their fear of the threatening rule of the workers and doing all in their power to avert the danger.’ What danger? A danger that had been prophesised by the ILP when they wrote ‘that should there be a workers’ revolt in Europe, there is nothing save a narrow strip of sea between us and what would then be the theatre of a great human tragedy.’

With Engels description in mind, however, we can begin to set Clause 4 in its real context. For it was penned in November 1917, when news of the Bolshevik takeover in Russia was still making news in Britain, when there were uprisings in Germany, Hungary and Ireland, when the Bolsheviks were arguing the case of peace with Germany, when workers all over Europe were war weary and sick of the social problems the war was creating, when crime rates in Britain were spiralling and when the ruling elite were beginning to realise that the Britain the soldiers would return to would not be, as Lloyd George had promised, ‘a land fit for heroes’.

The fear of insurrection amongst the ruling elite – amongst whom the Fabian Society considered themselves – was real enough. The Fabians had in fact felt such qualms for thirty years, seeing in the working class not a mass of exploited workers, impoverished workers, in whose united strength resided their own emancipation, but rather a seething mass of potential revolutionary fervour that must be contained at all costs.

In the 1890s, Beatrice Webb could expect ‘no hope from these myriad of deficient minds and deformed bodies – what can we hope but brutality, madness and crime?’  Two decades later, her views had not changed, for she saw unions as nothing but ‘undertrained and underbred workers’. Bernard Shaw even toyed with a solution – ‘sterilisation of the masses’ – an idea later to be taken up by Churchill and Hitler.

From the outset, the Fabians did not wish to abolish capitalism and thus remove themselves from their privileged positions. They wanted to reform capitalism, to soften some of its harsher effects, to make capitalism worker-friendly. They wanted peaceful, gradual change from capitalism to what Shaw was to describe as ‘state socialism’.

Rejecting the Marxian view that the state was a manifestation of the domination of the capitalist class, the Fabians believed the state to be impartial, neutral, to be used by anyone who could take power. However, the idea of the workers taking control was anathema to everything they stood for.

Their idea of socialism was one in which the state was controlled by experts and professionals ‘like themselves’ – trained in the new social sciences. They were, it appears, technocrats, believing that the technical administration of society should take the place of party politics. They certainly did not believe that the upsurge of protest against capitalism could be led by a class-conscious majority intent on social change in their own interest.

Moreover, the Fabians did not care who took their ideas on board and even harboured the notion of selling their wares to the Conservatives and Liberals.

They were arrogant, held the workers in contempt, feared them and were more than guilty of the charge of blatant class collaboration. Neither was Clause 4 written out of a genuine sympathy or empathy with the workers and with a view to changing the existing social system. It was penned to assuage, to pacify that section of society that was beginning to nurture the idea that it was time it took matters into its own hands.

Clause 4 was penned in an attempt to persuade that section of society that posed a threat to the ruling class that their lot could be bettered if they put their faith in an elite, an intellectual vanguard, who would work on their behalf in parliament and at a time when workers elsewhere were attempting to change society themselves, even if this was proving to be without any foresight.

State capitalism

Clause 4 did not mean socialism, only ever state-run capitalism, the nationalisation of capitalist industry, which would continue to be run according to the dictates of the profit system, only by a state-appointed board, not by private capitalist firms.

The ‘common ownership’ clause, which would eventually be reproduced on every Labour Party membership card was nothing short of a Fabian blueprint for a more advanced, as they saw it, form of capitalism, and with its adoption the Labour Party became the foremost advocate of state action to control and humanise the operation of private enterprise – which has nothing to do with socialism, because the profit system and its myriad shortcomings still exist and workers are always subject to the worst excesses of its contradictions.

To be sure, the idea of ‘socialising’ the means of production and distributing wealth was by no means a new idea in 1918. The notion had been mooted by previous Labour Party conferences and, although the idea attracted a lot of support, it never appeared in the party’s constitution. Whilst many a delegate regarded themselves as socialist, it was believed that such a blatant expression of ‘socialism’ would be a vote-loser.

This is an important point, as it shows that the Labour Party then, as now, was not so much interested in promoting ideas that threatened the hegemony of the capitalist class, but in securing the most votes. What made it possible, and indeed urgent, that the Labour Party should adopt Clause 4, without it being an electoral liability, was the radicalisation of workers brought about by war. But the time would come when Clause 4 was seen as an electoral liability.

Electoral liability

In 1955, Labour had lost 1.5 million votes compared with the 1951 election. Conservative seats rose from 319 to 345 seats and Labour’s share fell from 293 to 277.  At the 1959 election, Labour lost a further 196,000 voters, whilst the Tory tally rose by 448,000. One Labour commentator, Douglas Jay, speaking of nationalisation, said: ‘We are in danger of fighting under the label of a class that no longer exists.’

After the 1959 defeat, the then Labour leader Hugh Gaitskell decided there had to be some serious changes in Labour Party policy.  At a specially summoned post-election conference, previous defeats were discussed. Gaitskell declared: ‘In my opinion capitalism has significantly changed, largely as a result of our own efforts and the changing character of the Labour Party. Importantly, he argued, Labour had lost votes through its identification with common ownership – Clause 4’. Conference listened quietly, but cries of derision greeted his next words: ‘Standing as it does on its own, this clause cannot possibly be regarded as adequate … it implies that the only precise object we have is nationalisation, whereas we have many other socialist objectives.’

Although Gaitskell’s idea to drop Clause 4 was supported by many, including Bevan, it was quickly rejected.

Seemingly, it was Mrs Thatcher who eventually brought the question of Clause 4 back to the debating table, when she decided to privatise anything that stood still long enough to be privatised.

In 1983, the Labour Party manifesto claimed that common ownership would be expanded. The following year, the party conference passed a resolution on a show of hands that reaffirmed: ‘Clause 4 Pt 4 of the Labour Party constitution is the central aim of the Labour Party,’ and called for ‘repossession of all parts of the public sector privatised by the Tories.’

At the 1985 conference, Roy Hattersley asked for support for a resolution on ‘the need to extend social ownership and democratic planning into a significant number of key organisations, in banks, manufacturing, new technology and the service sector.’ Conference obliged. It also supported a resolution which called on ‘the next Labour government to return all privatised services … and all privatised industries to public ownership, and to repeal any privatisation legislation.’

By the time of the 1987 election, though Labour pledged to take back only BT and British Gas under ‘common ownership’, neither company would be in line to be nationalised. Instead, existing shares would be converted into new bonds, including varieties of ‘deep bonds’, designed to be attractive to institutional shareholders. Again, at the 1987 conference, the NUM moved a resolution to renationalise all industries privatised by the Tories. The union block votes were wheeled in and the motion was lost 3,869,000 to 2,397,000 votes. Within a few short years there was a gradual acceptance of Tory ideas that would continue.

Another nail in the coffin of ‘common ownership’ through nationalisation was the support for increased share ownership. Bryan Gould, Labour’s campaign manager in 1987 argued, in an amazing piece of Tory logic: ‘The idea of owning shares is catching on and, as socialists, we should support it as one means of taking power from the hands of the few and spreading it more widely.’

Enter Tony Blair

After three successive defeats at the polls, many in the Labour Party were now intent on burying Clause 4. One thing was certain, argued new Labour leader Tony Blair – if Labour was to stand a chance of winning the next election, Clause 4 as it stood had to be ditched. Blair declared this to be his intention at Conference 1994 and the party’s new Clause 4 appeared in March 1995 in time for a specially summoned conference on April 29th.

The vote was put to the membership whether Clause 4 should be reworded. Jarrow CLP became the first to vote in favour of holding on to the original Clause 4, but only three more would oppose it.  Blair’s new version won the day. A discussion document – Labour’s Objectives: Socialist Values in a Modern World – had been available before the vote. If Labour Party members had studied it – Clause 4 aside – many would probably have resigned in the belief that it was penned by Margaret Thatcher. The document explained that the idea of common ownership only came about because ‘there was a genuine revulsion at the sheer anarchy and exploitation associated with the free market of Victorian capitalism.’ The reference to ‘Victorian capitalism’ was a clever piece of trickery, giving the reader the idea that capitalism in the 1990s was no longer ‘anarchic’ and was now worker-friendly.

And what of the new Clause 4? Again we could see regurgitated the same old lie that ‘The Labour Party is a democratic socialist party’…which aims to put ‘power, wealth and opportunity in the hands of the many’ which was something Thatcher had claimed privatisation was doing. This startling new ‘socialist’ objective claimed ‘we work for a dynamic economy’ in which ‘ the enterprise of the market and the rigour of competition are joined with the forces of partnership and cooperation to produce the wealth the nation needs.’ Little wonder the Sun could announce (of Blair) ‘He speaks our language.’ Little wonder that when Labour took power, Thatcher could proudly inform a gathering of the Tory faithful that Tony Blair was her ‘greatest achievement’.

It was a mammoth achievement for the Tories, so much so that Labour continued to lurch further to the right year on year.

Never was socialist

For over a hundred years this journal has been arguing that Labour was never socialist. Even with Clause 4 being held up as a sign of its commitment to real change in the interest of the many, it has always been a party of capitalism and, in office, ever willing to serve as the executive arm of the capitalist class, never hesitant to use the might of the state to club the workers into submission whenever they became uppity, whether using troops to break strikes, creating the Special Patrol Group, internment in Northern Ireland or supporting and indeed initiating myriad conflicts throughout the world, from World War I, right through the Vietnam War and up to the invasion of Iraq and Afghanistan. For over 110 years, Labour has hoodwinked the workers, and endlessly led them down the blind alley of reformism, always mindful that its real allegiance was to the master class who own and control society.

Make no mistake. A Labour Party under Jeremy Corbyn would make no departure from the historical record. Its task would be primarily to try to make capitalism – a system based upon the exploitation of one class by another – work in the interests of the exploited. Labour, under Corbyn, would not really control the economy, it would control him. The historical record shows that if the dictates of capital demanded, the workers would have to be lied to, betrayed and made out to be villains of the peace and a threat to the economic interests of the country. No Labour leader to date has failed to be cast in a mould created by the capitalist class, no matter how noble their intentions.

If workers are really attracted by ideas of common ownership they would do well to realise that a party which has stood uncompromisingly and unwaveringly for real common ownership and, more, real democratic control of the earth’s natural and industrial resources, is still in existence – the Socialist Party.  Moreover, you will find no aspiring leaders within the Socialist Party, slugging it out and making rash promises to the membership, only a membership of equals in which Party affairs are decided democratically by the membership.

Neither are we keen on reforming capitalism or prostituting our principles on the high altar of opportunism as Labour has been doing since its inception and will continue to do even with Corbyn as leader. We seek the abolition of capitalism and all it represents, replacing it with a system of society in which money has been abolished, class antagonism eradicated and in which each person has free access to the necessaries of life.



Clause IV of the Labour Party Constitution, as originally drafted in 1918 and subsequently amended


1. To organise and maintain in parliament and in the country a political Labour Party.

2. To cooperate with the General Council of the Trades Union Congress, or other kindred organisations, in joint political or other action in harmony with the party constitution and standing orders.

3. To give effect as far as possible to the principles from time to time approved by the party conference.

4. To secure for the workers by hand or by brain the full fruits of their industry and the most equitable distribution thereof that may be possible upon the basis of the common ownership of the means of production, distribution, and exchange, and the best obtainable system of popular administration and control of each industry or service.

5. Generally to promote the political, social and economic emancipation of the people, and more particularly of those who depend directly upon their own exertions by hand or by brain for the means of life.


6. To cooperate with the labour and socialist organisations in the commonwealth overseas with a view to promoting the purposes of the party, and to take common action for the promotion of a higher standard of social and economic life for the working population of the respective countries.

International (Gaitskell amendment in 1959?)

7. To cooperate with the labour and socialist organisations in other countries and to support the United Nations and its various agencies and other international organisations for the promotion of peace, the adjustment and settlement of international disputes by conciliation or judicial arbitration, the establishment and defence of human rights, and the improvement of the social and economic standards and conditions of work of the people of the world.

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